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Doc sprints at STC Summit 2013 – the presentation

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Today it was my turn to stand up on stage, knees quaking, watching people enter the room, and hoping what I had to say would be useful to them.


My presentation is called Doc Sprints: The Ultimate in Collaborative Document Development. It focuses on planning and running a doc sprint, and how doc sprints are useful in developing the documentation our readers need.

It also includes a number of stories and tips, gleaned from doc sprinters around the world. Thanks to Anne Gentle, Swapnil Ogale, Ellis Pratt, Katya Stepalina, Andreas Spall, Jay Meissner, and Peter Lubbers, for contributing their ideas!

What’s in the presentation

The presentation covers these topics:

  • Introduction to doc sprints, agile environments, and why a doc sprint is a good fit for technical documentation.
  • Who to invite, when to start, and how to ensure that the sprint will produce the documents you need.
  • How to get the best out of the sprinters.
  • Collaborative tools for use during the sprint.
  • Sprinting across the world: Handling multiple time zones, early sprinters, late sprinters.
  • How to run a retrospective, and why.
  • Reviewing and publishing the documents, and writing up the results.
  • Other innovative types of sprints for documentation teams.

Getting the slides

You can watch or download the slides from SlideShare:

Doc Sprints

Feedback from attendees

There were plenty of questions, both during and after the session, which is great. People came up and told me they enjoyed the presentation. That’s very very nice to hear.

There were also quite a few tweets during the session. This has to be my favourite, from Stephanie Donovan:

Doc sprints

Stephanie’s tweet

If you see any blog posts or reviews appearing, let me know. And thanks so much to everyone for being such a great audience!

Conveying messages with graphs at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Early on Tuesday morning, Jean-luc Doumont presented a session titled Conveying Messages with Graphs. The blurb for this session is:

Graphical displays are still poorly mastered by technical communicators and other professionals. They seldom think of using graphs to communicate about data; when they do, they often use the wrong graphs or in the wrong way. Based on Doumont’s book Trees, Maps, and Theorems, about “effective communication for rational minds,” this session discusses how to select the right graph and how to optimize the graph’s construction, and how to phrase a useful caption.

Because this session is immediately before mine, I’ve decided not to take extensive notes. I’m too scatterbrained just before and just after live speaking! Instead, I’ll just give you my impressions from Jean-luc’s talk.

Jean-luc is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker, and the topic is very important in technical communication. I’m one of those text-oriented people. I find graphs difficult to interpret, and also difficult to create. A simple bar chart is good, but when you get to scatter-charts and 3D graphs, you leave me behind.

That’s why I attended Jean-luc’s session – to pump up my knowledge of conveying information in graphs. And I wasn’t disappointed. I’m now more comfortable with the more advanced types of graphs. More importantly, I know when to employ the simpler graphs, and how to knock out superfluous information. Simpler is better, as in most types of technical communication.

My two key take-aways are:

  • Beware of the x-axis in Microsoft Excel. It assumes the data is string-based, even if you enter numerical values. If you want a true numerical reflection of your data, you need to set the data type explicitly.
  • Horizontal bar charts are often more effective than vertical ones. The default is often vertical, but try flipping it around. A big advantage is avoiding vertically-oriented text.

Thanks Jean-luc for an informative presentation, delivered with charm. Here is a link to the handout from the session (PDF): Effective graphical displays.

Creating user experience for gamified products at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Marta Rauch presented a session titled Game On! Creating User Experience for Gamified Products. Marta learned about gamification when she became interested in what motivates people to contribute to communities. This was around 2005. She is now a certified gamification designer.

A key take-away from Marta:

Gamification is already here. It’s time for us to get our game on!

Importance of gamification

Why should we pay attention to it, as technical writers? Gamification is the technique of applying game techniques in non-game situations, to motivate people and drive behaviour. So if that’s what we need for a particular piece of user assistance, gamification would be a good fit.

Game techniques:

  • Game dynamics, which are rules to help you progress through the game
  • Game mechanics that help you achieve your goals
  • Game components that help you track your progress

Some stats

By 2014, over 705 of companies will have at least one gamified product. And by 2015, half will gamify innovation.

In the near future, a company that gamifies will be as important as eBay, Facebook, or Amazon.

In terms of money, the market is huge.

The focus is on engaging users. Gamification is the best way to engage younger workers (“millennial” workers). They have 10,0000 hours of gaming by age 21. This qualifies them as experts in gaming. They form 25% of the workforce now, and it’s a growing portion.

Marta highly recommends a TED talk by Dr Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world.

Game changers for tech comm

The next 9 sections are about the things gamification is introducing that we need to consider in tech comm.

1. Understanding motivation

We need to understand our players’ (users’) motivation. What would engage them and what do they really like? To this end, Marta has set up special sessions at user conferences (such as Oracle OpenWorld) to talk about gamification. They had surprising results:

  • Some players are not interested in badges, but rather in gaining access to information and people. That would be the kind of reward they would like.
  • Some people really like to help other people. This can also be a reward.

There’s been a lot of research on the general types of players that play games, and what motivates them:

  • Competing. Seeing how you rank against other players. Getting visibility.
  • Completing tasks and checking them off.
  • Helping other people.

In your gamified product, have tasks that play to these difference types of motivates.

Marta gave the example of the Nike fitness apps. They target main user groups, such as people who want to move through their fitness goals, or those who want to talk to and share with friends, or those who want to compete.

2. Gamified user assistance architecture and patterns

Plan the process, then keep the players motivated throughout.

There’s the concept of “onboarding” in games. It helps people know what to do when they get started. Games give you a plan to get started, and quests to follow or levels to conquer. Marta gave an example of a game used to teach maths.

A use case in tech comm: we may need to get people more involved in installing and configuring a product, and we want to keep them motivated all the way to the end.

In games, there’s often no documentation. Everything is embedded. There may be a quest to set up your user profile and get connected with other people. The game may also show you what other people are doing – a bit of peer pressure.

3. Gamification terminology

Marta listed some examples of game terms that have crept into general terminology, such as:

  • Onboarding
  • Avatar – this targets people who really like to customise and personalise
  • Quests
  • Leaderboards

4. Gamified messages

Messages are really crucial in a game.  They set the tone, as well as telling people what to do and giving them instructions. Think about a coach in real life. The messages are there just when they’re needed.

Often there is a link to the game FAQ. Inspired players love to share what they learn in a forum, and you may want to consolidate the top tips into the FAQ.

5. Writing style

The style is more informal, more friendly, intended to engage and motivate.

Marta pointed us to a chart by Amy Jo Kim – a social actions matrix. It shows the type of words you would use, depending on the quarter of the chart in which the target audience sits, or the type of quest.

6. Testing

When testing, have people sitting in a booth, unable to see each other. Watch how they’re doing. Are they achieving what we want them to achieve. Are they gaming the system in ways we don’t really want? Sometimes you may want to let them do that, and add it as a new feature, otherwise design it out.

7. Change mangement

If you’re going to upgrade or change the game, you must let the players know. They’ll be engaged and motivated, and will hate it if you take something away or change it while they’re in mid stream.

8. Accessibility

If your company is required to be accessible, your gamification must be too. The best information available is from game designers. See Includification as a good source.

9. Localisation

This is always a challenge, because you need to consider the culture as well as translation. Game strategies may need to change. In some countries, for example, you don’t want a leaderboard, because it’s not seen as a good thing to be at the top of the board. Or, it may be OK for a group instead of an individual to be at the top. There are also legal and privacy considerations.

Examples of user assistance

Marta picked a few examples that she thought would be fun to talk about, and to get us thinking.

  • Microsoft Office – Ribbon Hero 2. “You’ve tried [various games]. Finally, here’s a game that will make you better at your job.” Marta recommends we download and try this game. It’s fun. Knights on horses, dragons. The “Canterburied Tale” quest helps you learn Word, for example. It has some excellent and fun animations. There are other quests to help you with Excel, and more.
  • Adobe PhotoShop – Level Up. There are five key tasks. They had a business need to teach these tasks, to reduce support calls. An example is changing red-eye. The game takes you through various missions. You “level up” as you move through various missions, and its tied into social networks (Facebook). People love to share, so let them do it.
  • Cisco – Mind Share. Cisco knows their players – these are certifications for network administrators. It’s really hard to get the certification, and was a painpoint for the administrators. Cisco knew that their administrators really enjoy SciFi games, so this was very successful for them.

A gamified reading app

This reading app was introduced in a gamification summit in San Francisco just a couple of weeks ago: “Read Social App”. You log in via Facebook, then start reading a book. The app shows your progress, and makes you feel good about it.

Marta showed us some great photos of how the app looks on a mobile device. You are presented with challenges to engage you in the content. Players type interesting tidbits they have learned while reading the chapter. The game also has ways to quiz you about what you’ve learned.

There’s also a way to unlock content. You can get access to a video, for example, as a reward for your effort.

You can see a tour at

Gamification framework

How to get started:

  • Define your business objectives
  • Define your audience (players)
  • Describe the behaviours you want them to follow
  • Devise activity loops
  • Remember it must be fun
  • Deploy the tools you need

Marta’s responses to some questions

Gamification is not the same as games. It’s doing something with a business focus, but with a little more fun and a little more engagement.

Check your metrics. By gamifying a task, we aim to achieve that task a little more efficiently and effectively.

How does this apply to mid-career professionals? The data shows that the average age of a gamer is older than we thought. Also, a number of women play games. The Home Shopping network is very into gamification.

Thanks Marta

Marta finished off by pretending we (the audience) were on a gamification quest. Yaayyy, we’re already on stage 1, by attending Marta’s session. She took us through a number of “levels” we can follow,  to take us all the way to “mission accomplished” where we become gamification gurus.

Marta’s slide deck on SlideShare has a number of useful resources, for learning more about gamification. She also recommends a gamification course by Kevin Werbach, hosted on coursera. It’s pretty intensive, and you can gain an accreditation at the end.

This was a fun and inspiring session. It made me want to learn more. Thanks Marta!

From technical writer to content strategist at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Alan Porter‘s presentation is called From Technical Writer to Content Strategist. Here’s what Alan promises for this session:

Content strategy is a hot topic right now. The rise in corporate awareness of the value of content represents a great opportunity for technical writers to leverage their skills and experience. This session will help you position yourself to take advantage of that opportunity.

I’m looking forward to a talk by Alan, someone I admire for his diversity and depth of knowledge in the writing and communication fields.

Kicking off the session

After a couple of laughs about food, beer, and cut-and-paste (you had to be there!) Alan summarised the message of his session like this:

I’m going to talk about why I think technical communicators are best fitted to become content strategists.

Alan asked various members of the audience what their company does. After hearing a few specific answers (develop software, medical devices, etc) someone got the right answer: Every company is in business to make money. The other answers describe how we do it.

There’s no good developing something, without telling people about it. That’s marketing. Then you have to get people to buy it. That’s sales. Collect money. That’s finance.

And the fifth thing every company does is: Create content.

Different views of content

The thing about content is, it’s not seen as a strategic asset, because everyone creates is. We have to change this view. Depending on your role, you have a different view of content. Alan showed us some pictures of different ways of seeing a pig.

  • Marketing puts the lipstick on the pig.
  • The tech comm department shows a diagram of the pig and describes its various parts.
  • The customer sees pigs wallowing in the mud.

What customers care about

They care about their problems, not ours.

We’re the people causing the disruptions.

As content strategists, we need to see the customer’s view of the content. And we, as technical communicators, are really good at that.

Definition of content strategy

One problem is that there are so many definitions of content strategy at the moment.

To Alan, it’s about:

Achieving business goals for us and our customers, by maximising the impact of content.

Analysing enterprise content

Companies don’t know:

  • What content they have that is relevant to the customer.
  • Where the content gaps are. The content is developed in silos, so things slip through the cracks.
  • What resources are available elsewhere, either inside or outside the company, that you can use instead of developing new content.
  • How to put processes in place for the more advanced aspects of content, such as retiring content, managing content.
  • How to deliver content in the way the customer needs.

Where a content strategy fits

Alan showed us a four-part pyramid. From the top down:

  • Editorial vision
  • Content strategy
  • New capabilities
  • Foundational capabilities – these are the skills and knowledge that technical writers have. Things like metadata, for example.

Providing value to the customer

Content needs to be engaging, relevant and actionable. It must help the customer do something, so they can solve an immediate business need. Alan is currently analysing exactly what “engaging” means. In part, it must be something the customer wants to read, and can find easily.

Where’s the opportunity for a technical communicator?

A survey asked companies whether they have a unified content strategy that covers both marketing and multi-channel publishing. 80% of the responders said no.

That’s a big opportunity for us. But we need to change our terminology. Instead of talking about metadata and publishing processes, we must talk about business case and strategy. We need to use the vocabulary that the business uses. That’s the role of a content strategist.

Alan took us through a chart showing a typical framework for a content strategy process. The chart is in his slide deck on on SlideShare.

How to go about it

Be aware that content resides across the organisation. We need to break down silos, build bridges, talk to people, and get them to talk to each other. End the cold war between departments, such as tech comm, marketing, training, and so on.

Perform audits of your content. Find out what you have, across the organisation. This can be painful. You need people who understand content, and can ask questions about the business purpose of the content.

Offer advice, build a vision, and share that vision across the organisation.

Figure out a way your content adds revenue. Don’t say you can save money, because that will make it more difficult to get more budget the following year.

Thank you Alan

My key take away from this talk is that we must learn to talk the language the business people are talking, and use it to emphasize our skills, knowledge and impact. Thank you Alan for an encouraging glimpse into the life of a technical communicator become content strategist.

Documentation teams and company mergers at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Kirsty Taylor’s presentation has an intriguing title: And Then There Was One … Documentation Team. Her team of technical communicators has recently undergone a company merger, and the documentation team has merged with another global team. Kirsty will tell us how to keep our sanity under such circumstances, while looking at the aspects of “culture, standards, time differences, and multiple Englishes”.

Setting the scene

Two years ago, the company Kirsty worked for was bought by a huge conglomerate. The conglomerate then acquired another company, and merged Kirsty’s documentation team with the teams in the other company. They now work together as one team. The company is in the business-to-business area, in the mining and defence industries.

The content team consists of 21 people, over 3 continents, and 11 offices. Kirsty manages the Asia-Pacific region, which covers 5 time zones. Kirsty’s team is also responsible for producing the classroom training materials for their consulting services.

In the last 5 years, there have been multiple acquisisions. The development and documentation team have been merged into one. It’s a distributed team, but with a central function and reporting structure.

This has involved aligning tools, standards, styles, responsibilities and roles. As technical writers come in from each organisation, they learn to use the standard tools. Their roles are aligned with the rest of the team.

One of the really strong things about the team is that they strive for consensus. There’s not always agreement, but there is consensus.

Mincom was added in 2010

This was the largest acquisition to date, in terms of merging of tech comm teams – there were 9 technical writers at Mincom. At first, the two R&D groups worked independently.

Technical writers are inherently curious people. So Kirsty and the other writers from both teams found each other and started talking and comparing notes. The structures and development team were still silos.

There have been many changes at top-management level too.

At the end of 2013, the R&D teams started working together. The technical writing team are still the teams who work most closely together. In March this ear, the VP of Quality Operations started, and the technical writers became part of the QO area.

Kirsty says that this was not like a takeover. It’s a much more collaborative environment, where they’re working together to decide how to move forward.

Refreshed branding

When the merger finally happened, the brand had to change. Luckily it was just the logo that needed to change. Not much else.

Standards committee

The team decided to form a standards committee for online help. There were too many writers to include everyone in the meetings, so they decided to involve the key team members with clever ideas.

Quick wins and collaboration

They looked at the things they could do to improve collaboration and get quick wins early.

  • Style and standards for online help. This can be tricky, because everyone feels passionately. People had just recently redefined their styles, and didn’t want to change again. The approach was “not to kill anyone’s babies”. Don’t enforce the standards unnecessarily. Be grateful that we’re working together
  • Output format. They focused on this because they’d be able to show stakeholders they were working together.
  • The aim was to start looking like one company, in terms of the documentation, and to show they’re working together as a team, even if not a single team.
  • Knowledge and experience gained from earlier mergers and acquisitions. It was incredibly useful having people who had already gained skills in negotiating decisions.

Problems and challenges

There are some problems to tackle.

Time zones. Kirsty has one person in Perth, while most of the team are in Atlanta. The time difference is 12 hours. There are 21 individuals in the team. Some like/need to start early. Others want/need to start late and work late. This makes team meetings difficult. One trick is to shuffle the meeting times, so that it’s not always the same people who have to work early or late.

The Australian team is used to having the team get together and make a decision, then go back to their desks and make the change. Now it takes adaptation to make the decisions monthly via a standards committee.

It’s tempting to group and name things for the former region or company. But this can create division. Management needs to guard against this. Instead, create a sense of unity and team. Use the words “our team” and “we” frequently and by default. Foster and develop relationships between team members across the pond. Buddy up the technical writers. Make sure they have the facilities (WebEx accounts, for example) to work together.

The company is still consolidating the tools to be used. For example, at first they used GoToMeeting. Then that was no longer available, and they’ve tried Telkom, WebEx, Skype. All have their problems. You need special headsets, or Skype credits, and so on. These ongoing changes can cause problems that can upset team members.

Other important tools are those for content creation, publishing, eLearning, etc. What is standard in one office is not necessarily standard globally. This can cause confusion.

There are changes to content style and writing standards. For example, do you use US or Australian spelling, syntax and punctuation? The information architecture needs to be consolidated. Think about the voice of your content, and more.

Encouraging the team to collaborate

Kirsty mentioned the idea of a team-building exercise somewhere half way between Atlanta and Brisbane. Hawaii, for example! But she laughed and said this probably wouldn’t happen.

Hold a global team meeting. Use games to help people get to know each other, and slide with a photo and short bio.

Have some internal social networking, in a tool like Chatter. Encourage team discussions, share articles and blog posts, ask questions, and respond when others ask questions. They do have SharePoint too, but felt that Chatter is more collaborative.

Pair people on projects, as “buddies”. Be flexible. Allow people to work from home for early or late starts.

Within SharePoint, try a shared team task list. This was a great initiative from the US team. A team task list is a request list from any team member who may need help from another team member. People can ask for a review, or help with something specific like CSS. This is also a useful tool for managers to see when team members need help, or someone is regularly giving help.

The team needs some way of sharing ideas. Hold virtual brown bag sessions, via webinars and recorded sessions.

Main themes

These are the main themes Kirsty has noticed so far:

  • People. It’s all about change management and working on team relationships.
  • Processes. When you’re aligning your processes, it’s a really good time to see why you’re doing something or not doing something. This can be really hard to justify.
  • Collaboration. Focus always on co-operation and the fact that you’re one team.

Thanks Kirsty

This was an intriguing glimpse into the issues that arise when global teams are merged, and the creative solutions Kirsty and her team are putting in place. Thanks Kirsty!

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